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Beth Aarons: The value of strong leaders

Strong leaders are enthusiastic, visionary, and personable. Ahead of her speaking engagements at Cruise Connect Europe, we had an open discussion with Beth Aarons, Global Director at Dorchester Collection Academy, about leadership.

Seth Godin, American author and former dot com business executive, notes that “a tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.”

Successful leaders are visionaries first. They eclipse the title of boss, applying a mix of commitment, skill and charisma, to lead their tribe.

While certain leadership skills can be learned and sharpened over time, an effective leader has enthusiasm, conviction and style of managing people.

Ahead of her speaking engagements at Cruise Connect Europe, we had an open discussion with Beth Aarons, Global Director at Dorchester Collection Academy, about leadership. We discussed the value of strong leaders, being a personable visionary, and the value of communication and simplicity.

The value of strong leadership

A general definition of management would be: the process of organising or coordinating tasks to deliver outcomes or objectives.

Leadership is so much more.

“Today, leadership is a much greater focus for many businesses versus management,” notes Aarons. “Leadership is about being visionary, being inspirational, providing guidance, support and perhaps the most important thing, developing your team.”

“Businesses have evolved away from management towards leadership over the last 5-10 years. Leaders provide context for their team, to enable their team to successfully produce an outcome and ultimately achieve the vision of the business.”

When price is a level playing field, differentiation is a key factor in allowing a business to maximize the potential revenue. Aarons believes that in an age where we have rapidly shifted to an economy based on data and information, businesses need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. To do that they need strong leaders to ensure the commercial success of the business.

“If a business doesn’t have a stronger leader to guide them, as much for their teams as for their customers, they need it for their reputation. Reputational management and the reputation of the business these days is perhaps more important than ever before. If you don’t have strong leaders to bring the vision of the business to life that has an impact on employee engagement and therefore potentially on your customers. Customers notice where there isn’t strong leadership in a business and can feel disenfranchised” says Aarons.

She believes a lack of vision and forward thinking can have consequences, as “businesses we thought were household names such as; Woolworths, Debenhams, Maplin’s, Delta Airlines, Blockbuster, HMV, we believed were strong, secure, with a lot of history - have not progressed and are now much smaller or are no longer a part of our lives.

“If you look at companies that have strong leadership, they are continuously looking to the future, reinventing themselves, and do not assume that what they did yesterday, is good enough. They are always considering how they can be better and stay ahead of the curve.”

On the other hand, Aarons believes the complete opposite occurs when successful businesses are taken over by a weak leader. One is likely to see the business erode over a relatively short period of time, it’s not just customer who is impacted but the employees of the business too.

And while the leader of a business is the figurehead (or talisman) for a business, “I think it’s actually sad to see what can happen when you don’t have that strong, visionary leadership. And that is not just at the top, it's absolutely essential that the vision is shared across the entire business.”

Being a visionary in the age of the internet

With the growth of the internet and the ability for us to instantly communicate, some businesses have taken to copying each other. Businesses can instantaneously see what their competitors are doing, faster than ever before. Organisations which take the approach to adopt the practices and products of a competitor can be described as a fast follower.

It's vitality important to innovate and develop a customer-led strategy. Today's customer is empowered - they want seamless, effortless interactions with their service providers. Many fast followers are quick to adopt strategies or executions which are showing success, but simply being a fast follower is not enough to maintain success.

Aarons says that as competitors are quick to react to your product or marketing, it’s important to be visionary but it’s quite another to continuously reinvent yourself, “It’s not to say that you reinvent yourself to be quirky or not true to your business vision and values, but it's reinventing yourself to be looking to the future and thinking about what it is that my customers want and how can I deliver that? How can I make sure that I am delivering to my staff and my team? Exceeding your customers’ and employees’ expectations by creating fantastic experiences for them.”

“It is essential for a business to have focus on the future by looking at the wider business context. Don’t assume that your competitors are only those that you might define as such.”

Leadership: nature vs nurture

Commitment, skill and charisma, are key factors in determining leadership. But are leaders born, or are they made?

Aarons believes that leadership changes and evolves over time. As humans we have evolved and will continue to do so. It therefore means that how we behave as leaders has also changed. There are some characteristics or traits that come from who we are and there are those which are formulated over time through interactions and experiences.

“If you are open to learning and trying new approaches, I believe you can build and hone some of the attributes which are more commonly found great leaders,” says Aarons. The skills, attitudes and style of management that was relevant 20 years ago, is just not relevant today. With considerable societal shifts come changes in leadership styles too. Can we then say that awareness is another key trait of a strong leader?

Aarons offers, “Successful leaders challenge themselves. Continuously learning from their surroundings and their experiences. Can you say that you are born to do that? It's difficult to know, but it is a combination of factors, such that you can never say that someone is either born or made. It's a blend of experiences that land well on some, and not on others. Those continuing to use older, or more traditional approaches of management which were popular 20 years ago, may find themselves becoming stuck.”

An important part of being a leader on a cruise ship, the individual should embody the values of the organisation, and this will very much depend on how those values are embraced by the business and translated into the different areas of the operation. Most businesses have a set of values that govern all interactions - whether they are dealing with customers, employees or suppliers.

When asked how a business can put their values into practice Aarons observes that “if one of the businesses’ values is customer excellence, for example, a leader should be able to look back and say, did I operate in the context of that value while conducting business? Did I embody the value in my communication - in my day-to-day dealings with my customers, employees, colleagues, and with my manager? If I didn't, why didn't I? What were the things from stopping me from doing that? What factors were in play and most importantly, what am I going to do about it?”

Addressing these questions can help a business to get to the root of many service-related issues.

Process & policy vs the human touch

Processes and policies of a business will have solid reasoning behind them, particularly from the perspective of compliance, cleanliness and safety. But are these conducive to the values of the business, or are they impeding the fulfillment of the values? Leaders need to have scope to review these and ensure the processes and policies are properly supporting their business. It is highly likely, the processes put in place even as recent as three years ago, may no longer allow a team the level of customer service that businesses need to be providing today.

“Five to ten years ago, management and leadership was very much about processes and policies. We would have manuals the size of a shipyard, and none of them ever came off the shelf,” reflects Aarons. “While some businesses still operate within those processes, I would ask if they are still relevant? A true leader looks at the scope of the entire business to ensure operations are streamlined and the business is living their values. Are we recruiting, training and supporting employees to our values and are we looking after our customers in line with our values? You might find that some processes are no longer relevant, or helpful, in supporting either of those. A leader then acts to correct these.”

Understanding the importance of emotional connections to your employees and to your customer is key to the business of the future. To be successful, one cannot ignore the human side of interactions, or the business can run the risk of being run by rule books. Aarons offers that a leader needs to be aware of the person in front of you, “It’s crucial to put yourself in their situation - what is important to this person, and how do I want to be treated? Kindness over process is perhaps the most important thing when dealing with both employees and customers. It allows you to look at the world in a very different way.”

She explains that through these connections one creates emotional relationships, and a business generates brand advocacy. How a leader interprets the values and embodies them in their day-to-day interactions, is exceedingly important.

“I think that one of the biggest things that a leader can do nowadays, is to create brand advocacy,” considers Aarons. “That could be advocacy in terms of employees or customers. In the case of employees, you want them to be talking positively about your business when your back is turned. I am sure many a time you can see two employees in a shop for example, chatting about how they have not been paid properly, or they are unhappy because a request has been turned down. If a customer is going into that environment and hears those conversations that immediately creates an impact and an impression of the brand, the leader, and themselves as customers of that brand.”

She continues, “Similarly, the customer wants an experience that really resonates with them, and therefore your relationship as a business goes much deeper than, this is a lovely environment. They want to align and be a part of the brand.”

Crew leadership: simplicity, development & communication

For the cruise industry to attract and build leaders in the future, there are some items which the industry, or business, will need to get address. Two important factors to achieving success will be attracting the right talent, and genuinely investing in people.

“Businesses will need to walk the talk. They need to create the opportunities for people to develop and the motivation to develop themselves. It’s not just about looking at training as a course. Training is so much more,” considers Aarons. “It’s looking at all the opportunities one has to learn; looking at learning in a much broader context.”

In recent years, she has seen a shift from businesses providing a list of predetermined courses which the business offers, to companies asking their employees what they want to do. She believes this allows people to take responsibility and guide their own learning.

“Let us know what you want to do and then we can look at how we can create that opportunity to make it happen,” says Aarons. “Continuous professional development (CPD) is so important these days. 15 years ago, when people started talking about it, it was considered unusual and people really didn’t get it. Now it’s the norm, and your CPD doesn’t need to be a 2-day training course, it can be reading relevant articles or creating a discussion group.”

“At Dorchester Collection Academy, we have a discussion group which we call Bounce. Literally so we can bounce ideas off each other. We use this group to tackle problems and look at new or different ways of dealing with common challenges. It’s a huge learning opportunity.

She continues, “It may not work for everyone, but it works well for us. It allows us to be creative - addressing one of the core values of our business - but is also helping us to develop and bring us closer together as a team. You can’t put this into a manual, and I don’t think that insisting on this for every department in every business, would work.”

A current, and very practical, trend which Aarons has noticed for engaging employees is simplicity. Recently she was asked by a company how can they engage employees before they even start. She explains that, “we keep it simple. We send them a card saying congratulations, you’ve got the job and we're really looking forward to you joining. We get the team to sign it and whenever we've got an opportunity to involve them in the business before they even start for example, we do have a training course, we have a social, or something of that nature, we invite them along. It speaks to our values of respect, personality and creativity.

“It’s not difficult or expensive and demonstrates a simple way in how you can engage with people at a human level and demonstrate that they are important. If you were the person on the receiving end of the invitation, how are you going to feel? It’s about communicating, we're thinking about you and you're important to us.”

Looking to the future, Aarons believes that personalisation of customer service, and how the customer feels they are considered by the business, will be increasingly important in how a business differentiates itself from their competitors. “A business will need to ask itself whether the customer is truly at the centre of their business, are they really valued, and how can the business tailor their experience,” explains Aarons. “Smiling, eye contact, and body language are parts of the simplistic elements of customer service. While they are now considered the norm, there are many companies which have not managed to get it right.

“Companies that have and have realised the importance of service as a differentiator, are now focused on personalised touches and experiences for those customers,” offers Aarons. “How is the business recognising customer loyalty? Recognising their value to the business and encouraging their continued loyalty. If you don’t, there will be another business - cruise company, restaurant, or hotel - positioning themselves as better.”

A customer’s journey has multiple touchpoints. From when a customer is considering purchasing your product or service, through to after-sales, a business needs to create that connection with the customer upfront and maintain their experience throughout the entire journey. Understanding and streamlining this does take time. Any shift or change in approach is usually part of a larger transformation within a business.

“Often, it’s not something which someone in human resources or learning and development can do on their own. This must be a complete paradigm shift within an entire business, and it must be supported throughout the organisation,” Aarons offers in closing. “If it is not, then it is not going to realise the intended success or change, and that’s where we go back to leadership. Having inspirational leaders who work together and speak with the same voice are a company’s strength.”


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